“Here I Saw What Might Well Happen …”

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I much like some of the songs by Yuri Shevchuk, of the Russian band DDT; he began writing and performing in the late Soviet era, and has continued since then. My favorites among his songs are the more political ones (such as the one about the wreck of the submarine Kursk); quite a few relate to Russia’s recent wars, such as in Chechnya.

In particular, there’s a 1997 song called Пацаны, transliterated as Patsany, a Russian term that roughly means “guys” or “boys” and refers here to the young Russian men fighting in the First Chechen War; and half a stanza from it keeps bouncing around my head:

Here I saw what might well happen
To Moscow, Ukraine, the Urals

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KErdVWpatYo?feature=oembed&w=500&h=375]

Chechnya, in the north Caucusus right by the Georgian border, is out in the boonies in the eyes of most Russians, I think. It’s mostly populated by an ethnic group (the Chechens) that many Russians don’t really see as Russian. It’s mostly Sunni Muslim, again distinguishing it from “real Russia.” (Conversely, Ukraine, which isn’t part of the Russian Federation, is still part of cultural Russia to many.)

But part of what Shevchuk was saying (just a part) is that this could be the future not just of the periphery but of the heartland. As to Ukraine, of course, his line proved prophetic.

I keep thinking about this, though not with geographical spread but conceptual, when I hear about much that’s been happening here in recent years. I suppose I’ve long been interested in slippery slopes (I wrote a Harvard Law Review article on them in 2003), but Shevchuk’s lines encapsulate it especially well for me. I see the Great USC Chinese Homonym Panic and I see what might well happen to a vast range of other teaching that some ideological groups might label “trauma[tizing]” or dangerous to “mental health” or “harm[ful to] psychological safety.”

Of course I’ve seen it happen to many other professors who have quoted precedents, court filings, historical documents, and other items that actually contain the word “nigger”—it has already happened to me, though with less dire consequences, at least so far—but that might still be conceptual Chechnya to many. But, as Randy Kennedy and I discuss in our draft article, it hasn’t stopped there, and it shows no sign of stopping. I see in the current incidents what is likely to happen to the Moscow, Ukraine, and the Urals of American intellectual life: to any expression of ideas or facts that some people (of all races) view as “harmful” to supposedly vulnerable groups. And of course I have the same worry about the spread of many other attempts at suppression of speech and other liberty, in the universities and outside them.

In any case, I’m sure it doesn’t take a Russian song about the Chechen War to make this point; but for some reason Patsany has taken up residence just a neuron way from where I think of American free speech debates.


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